Remember the Revolutionary King
Celebrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday at Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) has become one of the most important parts of my job as the Director of Public Programs at MoAD. I first programmed our biggest day of the year in 2012, so this past January 21, 2019 marked my eighth year organizing the Family Free Day. It is our biggest day of the year in terms of attendance – we have reached between 1800-2500 guests each year, as well as sheer volume of programming and all the moving pieces that need to be managed – volunteers, performers, art activities, increased security, etc.
Over the years we have celebrated with inspiring art projects including vision boards, screenprinting, xerox transfers, memory boxes, to name a few; with music and dance from all over the diaspora – such as Bobi Cespedes, Locobloco, Broun Fellinis, the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble, and Young Gifted and Black. We have had discussions with Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, shown films about MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, as well More Than A Month, a documentary about Black History Month, and Tell Them We Are Rising, a documentary about HBCUs. We even had a small HBCU fair the first few years until it outgrew our space.
This year I found myself thinking differently about MLK day and how we honor it. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is primarily celebrated for his non-violent protest movement to end racial segregation in the South, and for his “I Have a Dream” speech which is usually distilled to its line about racial harmony, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Yet he was much more complex than that, even this oft-quoted line can be interpreted in very different ways. Dr. King was not always celebrated in this country. His views were radical and he was seen as a very dangerous threat to the status quo in the United States. He was surveilled by the FBI and jailed multiple times for his subversive actions. We tend to forget, or ignore, how truly revolutionary Dr. King was, as we celebrate his legacy year after year.
In later years, Dr. King became more radical, not less. He vocalized his opposition to the Vietnam War, delivering the speech “Beyond Vietnam” in April 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, demanding an end to the war. He led a march of six thousand protestors in support of striking sanitation workers in March 1968 in Memphis, the march descended into violence. He returned less than one week later to lead another protest, only to be assassinated the next day at his hotel in Memphis. Around the time I begin planning MLK Day at MoAD, the hotel workers for the Marriott group went on strike, demanding higher wages, lighter work-loads and preservation of existing health benefits. They remained on strike, actively picketing outside their hotels for two months, when the strike finally ended successfully for the employees. Three of the Marriott hotels are within a block of MoAD, including the hotel in which our building resides, the St. Regis. I did my best to support the striking workers, and I couldn’t help but think that if Dr. King were alive today, he would have been on the picket line with them.
It is this version of Dr. King, the revolutionary, the dreamer, the radical presence chipping away at failures of American democracy that I choose to celebrate. This year, as we featured the Prescott Circus Theater, Dimensions Dance Theater, sidewalk chalk art with Jamie Treacy, Batalá San Francisco, Marcus Shelby and his youth orchestra, MLK in the “Land of Gandhi” produced by the King Institute, a family art activity with Nicole Dixon, and the exhibitions PHONE HOME: Sadie Barnette and Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem (a museum founded the year King was assassinated), I thought about the hotel workers, and how grateful I am that organized action can still bring about change. I thought about Dr. King and all that he has taught us about the power of collective action. I thought about how much this country needs to learn to truly celebrate his legacy, and I look forward to having the opportunity to do it again next year.